When you started out, some reviewers wrote about your accent — why was that ?
There was almost this obsession with the fact I’m from Luton and don’t speak as if I’m from Oxbridge. It would be things like ‘Once you’ve got past her accent…’ or ‘She’s like a caricature’. But when I’m making programmes about compelling subjects, you’ve missed the point if you’re focusing on the way I talk.
Was that because they weren’t used to seeing working-class people present factual shows?
I think it was. I started when I was 20 and there has been some progress. We’re seeing different faces and hearing different voices on TV but ten years ago it was almost like, ‘How does she have the audacity to take on these hard-hitting subjects?’
You left school without doing GCSEs — has that held you back?
I didn’t go to college, didn’t go to uni, it wasn’t on my radar. There wasn’t any appetite for a career at all at that age, I didn’t take it seriously at all, which obviously I wouldn’t recommend. I’ve been very lucky and my career has been unorthodox. But uni isn’t for everyone. Being on the ground and working hard and finding your feet is the route some people should take. Whatever works for you. Don’t feel pressured into thinking you have to be an academic to do well in life because that isn’t true.
What can people expect from your new shows?
They are hard-hitting. The first one asks if paedophiles can be reintegrated into society — we met some sex offenders in Florida who have served their time but say they’re the only type of criminals who aren’t given a second chance. The second is about domestic violence in Russia — as long as you don’t break your wife’s bones it’s not a criminal offence there any more, then there’s one where I go back to Iraq and the last is about Roma children in Hungary.
When you met the paedophiles, did you get the impression they were making excuses rather than accepting responsibility?
I think that’s a correct statement. We met one man who I think is still in denial about what’s happened as a result of his abuse. He lied to me about what he’d done at the start and there was another man who minimised what he’d done. But they live together, which has almost normalised what they’ve done.
What shows have you found the most difficult?
Iraq’s the most difficult place to film — you can plan but you never know what’s going to happen when you’re there. I followed Yazidi girls who escaped from Isis and although I did my best to make sure they felt comfortable talking to us, you have to come home and live your life and not feel guilt. I don’t think I’m going to change the world but raising awareness is a good thing. And even in the most harrowing circumstances I meet amazing people trying to counterbalance the bad — NGOs or women putting their lives on the line to help others.
Has your work destroyed your faith in human nature?
No. I might be listening to horror stories for 15 hours a day but I also meet people trying to make positive change. I’m not throwing the towel in just yet.
What show has had the most positive impact?
We did a show in America about gay conversion therapy. There were academics saying it was genuinely some sort of solution, and lots of young lads who were religious but also gay felt conflicted. Soon after, it was discussed in Congress, which was good to know but that was a collective effect from articles that had also been written about it as well as the show.
Are you naturally quite tactful talking to people?
No. I don’t know how I’ve managed to get my way through, but I treat everyone with respect and tell them I’m there to give them their say, so it works out OK.
What’s next for you?
I’ve started producing, which makes you a better presenter. I’m learning to shoot — I’m spreading my wings a bit. You never can take work for granted when you’re a freelancer.
Stacey Dooley Investigates: Second Chance Sex Offenders is on BBC Three via BBC iPlayer. Her book, On The Frontline With Women Who Fight Back (BBC Books), is out on Feb 15